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Wireless review – global rap stars give London weekender a clear message

Having been through various incarnations over the past 12 years – indie gathering, dance party, a place for big-name headliners – last year it seemed as though Wireless was perhaps caught between two stools: stadium dance from Calvin Harris and Chase & Status chafed against UK grime supergroup Boy Better Know in the headline slots. For 2017, however, the festival’s organisers home in on rap and hip-hop acts from both sides of the Atlantic to give it a more distinct identity. With the musical relationship between North America, the UK, the Caribbean and Africa increasingly symbiotic – from Drake’s collaborations with UK up-and-comers Dave, Jorja Smith and Giggs, to the new iterations of the club-ready “afrobeats” style – it’s now much easier to see the USP that the Finsbury Park weekender offers.

As things kick off on the Friday, Skepta collaborators Flatbush Zombies bring their rocky-edged east coast hip-hop, hurtling around tracks from their trippy 2016 debut album as well as earlier singles such as Glorious Thugs. They’re followed by AJ Tracey – the rising grime star with a penchant for rapping about anime – who rolls through his hits (Spirit Bomb, Leave Me Alone, Pasta) before calling New York’s Swoosh God to the stage for their collaboration, LA4AWEEK, a fresh rap banger that tells the tale of the pair getting drunk together over an expensive lunch in Los Angeles.

Friday evening is headlined by Chance the Rapper, who doesn’t have any Brit connections to boast of, but the Chicagoan does have unbridled charisma as he takes to the stage to perform his ecclesiastical gospel-tinged rap. Nowhere is it stronger than on Blessings, thousands of fans lifting their arms to the sky and then back down again as he and his backing band sing “when the praises go up, the blessings come down”. Bringing out producer/collaborator Francis and the Lights – without introduction, leaving him looking a little like someone’s dad who got lost on his way to the Portaloos – leads to an unexpected highlight, as the pair have a dance-off to their Latin-inspired collaboration May I Have This Dance, which somewhat channels Toto’s Africa.

On Saturday, Travis Scott delivers his hyperactive rap with rumbling, distorted bass rolling around the park and a huge animatronic eagle behind him on stage, proving that the spirit of rock lives on at Wireless in more than just the mass-produced Metallica T-shirts that the teenage revellers are wearing. Skepta closes the day bringing out his Boy Better Know family once more, moving from tracks from his Mercury-winning album Konnichiwa to BBK classics such as Too Many Man and the acerbic bars of JME’s 96 Fuckeries. Lethal Bizzle and 20-year-old Novelist also join them, closing the circle from the creators of grime to those carrying on its legacy today. The only thing missing from this unofficial BBK set is Drake, although Skepta raps his interlude from the Canadian’s More Life record.

Sunday sees another Skepta associate, Nigeria’s Wizkid, bring his afropop to the stage, with Tinie Tempah making an exuberant cameo for their Latin-inspired duet Mamacita. Elsewhere, east London’s Stefflon Don – said to be in the studio with, yes, Drake – does biting dancehall-heavy rap, inviting 30 or so girls on stage with her for her finale, prompting the typical sea of teenagers’ phones being held aloft. Nas follows with an unapologetically old-school set, throwing it all the way back to his 1994 debut Illamtic, paying tribute to Mobb Deep’s Prodigy with a cover of Shook Ones (Part II) and bringing out Damian Marley for a touch of Zion. The Weeknd topped proceedings off with his MOR – if extremely popular – guitar-fuelled R&B ballads drawing a huge crowd, and accompanied star-shaped fireworks to match the title of his latest album Starboy.

However, for all its transatlantic polish, there are elements that let Wireless down. Rae Sremmurd’s Auto-Tune-heavy hip-hop feels overwrought, even if mannequin-challenge hit Black Beatles gets a huge response. Tyga’s set is mostly stomach-turningly explicit, not least on his Playboy freestyle – reportedly about ex-girlfriend Kylie Jenner, now dating Travis Scott – on which he promises to “fuck her like there’s 10 of me”. “Sometimes it’s better to be single,” he quips, but the whole thing – combined with his verses from two songs by the problematic Chris Brown – feels gross. Similarly, Ty Dolla $ign’s set is mostly focused around weed and women, with a hype man promising a questionable-sounding afterparty for all the ladies in the audience.

Elsewhere, even the raspy soul of Maverick Sabre couldn’t stop Australian hip-hoppers Hilltop Hoods’ set from sounding horrendously dated rather than brilliantly aged like Nas. Oh, and then there’s the park itself: yellowing grass almost entirely covered with rubbish, and devoid of any atmosphere away from the acts, unless you count Tim Westwood’s cringe-inducing, preprogrammed DJ sets. Despite this, Wireless 2017 is still an improvement on recent incarnations of the festival: finally showing a clear, current identity that takes the temperature of global black pop.